The recent increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Campbell County and Wyoming concerns Campbell County Health about what’s to come.
The organization is bracing for what could be another busy fall in response to an increase in COVID-19 community rates and hospitalizations paired with a shortage of certain supplies and staffing, said Misty Robertson, CCH chief nursing officer, whose last day with CCH was Friday.
Despite the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine this time around, some of the red flags from last year are beginning to pop-up.
Natalie Tucker, CCH’s interim chief nursing officer, said that CCH leadership has returned to regular meetings to plan its day-to-day operations due to the recent increase in COVID-19 related hospitalizations, emergency room and walk-in clinic visits.
The 140 COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout the state as of Friday is the most in Wyoming since there were 146 patients hospitalized on Christmas Eve, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
The ongoing toll has more than tripled since July 1, when there were 39 COVID-19 patients in the state.
Tucker said the statewide trends have appeared in Campbell County, too.
Although there have been more COVID-19 patients lately, the organization has not had to set-up and use alternate care sites within the hospital, as it did during the spike last fall.
And while not quite the staffing crisis of last year, the organization is seeing a shortage in staff. Robertson said that the hospital has not reached the point of being overwhelmed, but is concerned of the possibility.
In November and December, when the state and county had its highest number of patients to care for, Campbell County Memorial Hospital received a slew of support in the form of state CARES Act funding freed up to pay for traveling nurses as well as a federally assigned Disaster Medical Assistance Team that brought in out-of-state personnel.
The demand for traveling medical personnel has remained high, making it difficult and expensive to find temporary help if needed, Robertson said.
Campbell County Memorial Hospital has had its share of COVID-19 patients through its doors this summer after a relatively mild spring.
According to the Wyoming Department of Health’s records, Campbell County peaked with 28 COVID-19 patients on Dec. 10.
Between Feb. 1 and May 15, there were no more than three COVID-19 patients at one time in the county. That number rose during the early summer spike, topping out at eight coronavirus patients in the hospital on June 6.
The number of hospitalizations rose again in August, with 12 COVID-19 patients in the hospital on Aug. 3, as the county’s new and active case counts have continued to grow.
There were seven COVID-19 patients in the hospital as of Friday.
The 289 active cases on Friday stands in comparison to the 24 active cases in Campbell County on July 1, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
In line with national trends, Robertson said that the patients CCH has seen tend to be younger and sicker than in past waves. The CCH patients have been primarily unvaccinated with a projected rate of breakthrough infections at about 3% statewide.
In regard to supplies, CCH has faced a shortage of its oxygen supply, which Robertson said COVID-19 patients typically need.
Regardless of the politicization that may surround vaccination in this community, Robertson said that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is probably the strongest defense against illness and strain on the health care system.
Campbell County officials are disappointed that there seems to be no guidance from the state level as far as what’s next for Wyoming.
Commissioner Rusty Bell said that while the fossil fuel industry continues to decline, there hasn’t been any leadership or direction from the state when it comes to transitioning away from thermal coal.
That has led to communities taking “a shotgun approach” to doing projects that are best for their own futures, but there is no unified vision for the state as a whole.
There are billions of dollars in federal funding available to help areas that have been hit by the decline in the coal industry and the closing of coal-fired power plants.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency recently allocated $300 million of its $3 billion American Rescue Plan appropriation to support coal communities as they recover from the pandemic and to help them create new jobs and opportunities, including through the creation or expansion of a new industry sector.
The county will be going after some of that money to help build an industrial park east of Cam-plex.
And earlier this year, the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization identified $38 billion in federal dollars that can be accessed by coal-reliant communities for “infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, and community revitalization efforts.”
That includes $75 million in funding to engineer carbon capture projects, and $19.5 million in funding for critical mineral extraction from coal and associated waste streams.
With the amount of money that’s available, Bell said there should be some guidance from the state as to which communities would benefit most from which pools of money.
“It seems like there should be some guidance, someone overseeing this whole thing,” he said.
It’s not like the communities are standing idly by in the meantime, he said.
“I think everybody’s doing things in their own silos, really well, trying to do things in their best interest,” he said.
But right now, there is no state leadership as far as a unified direction for Wyoming moving forward, Bell said.
“Wyoming Energy Authority doesn’t do it, the governor’s office doesn’t do it. We all just do our own things. We have different partners but there is no leadership in this whole concept,” Bell said. “It’s kind of a shotgun approach, because we’re all doing our own thing.”
It’s a task that’s easier said than done, said Phil Christopherson, executive director of Energy Capital Economic Development. Some of the funding requires collaboration between communities, and each community is different, so getting regional cooperation is difficult.
He agreed that there’s “no real direction from the state” when it comes to this, and he didn’t foresee it coming any time soon, just because of how busy the state is with other things.
That’s not to say the state isn’t doing anything to help. The county has partnered with the state entities — like the governor’s office, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources — on a number of large projects. Those include the Wyoming Innovation Center and the CarbonSAFE project, both of which, if successful, will help with the transition from thermal coal.
“I don’t want people to think transition means that you’re giving up on your bread and butter. That’s not it at all,” Bell said.
It can be argued that Wyoming is one large coal-reliant community. When coal was at its peak, the whole state benefited from it. Now, with coal on a continual decline, the whole state is feeling the effects of that as well, Bell said.
Whatever Wyoming’s future holds, and whatever that transition looks like, all of its communities will be affected, and the state should be taking the lead on that, Bell said.
While it would be nice if the commissioners could focus all of their time on those developments, their main charge is taking care of county government.
For now, the county is getting by on the shotgun approach. After two unsuccessful attempts at getting grant funding for the Pronghorn Industrial Park, it will soon apply for American Rescue Plan money for the $12 million project.
The park will be located east of Cam-plex, and when complete it will have eight shovel-ready sites.
The county had planned to do the project in phases because of the limited amount of grant money. But now that there is $300 million available, commissioners hope to apply for the entire project.
“It will not take long to get a tenant in there,” Bell said.
It’s projects like that one that commissioners hope will help Campbell County in its transition.
Christopherson said that for all of the things Campbell County has going for it — low taxes, a skilled workforce, great amenities — none of it matters to a company that’s looking to move here if there isn’t a place for them to move in right away.
“We’ve missed out because we don’t have the sites available for businesses to come. They want to move faster than we (are able to),” he said.
Christopherson is part of a recently created business and industrial park task force to see what industry needs as far as business parks and to work with the private sector to see what can be done to attract and keep businesses here.
“If it’s going to take us another year to get permitted, another year to get streets in, they’re gone,” he said. “They’re not interested, they’re going to find some place else.”
“We have to figure out what over the next few years makes Campbell County a place that you should be,” Bell said.
In order to move forward, there needs to be a lot of collaboration between communities.
“Nobody wants more meetings unless it looks like there’s an end goal,” he said, and right now, there does not appear to be one.
“There’s just no overarching entity that says, ‘OK, this is the vision of Wyoming,’” he said. “We have a lot of good partners. But there’s a void at the top, somebody coordinating and helping not just Campbell County but all the communities move forward in some sort of unified way.”
Bell said he wasn’t sure if that leadership is going to come any time soon.
“I hope so,” he said. “But with or without that person, communities have to go forward to do what’s best for (them).”
The city of Gillette’s new fiscal year has gotten off to a great start and that is one reason why Mayor Louise Carter-King is feeling optimistic.
Gillette earned $3.36 million in sales taxes in July, which is up about 27.3% from the same time a year ago when the city earned $2.64 million.
The $3.36 million is up about 32.8% from what the city had budgeted for the month, $2.53 million.
The recent sales tax collection was the highest it has been since April 2020 when it was $3.68 million, City Finance Director Michelle Henderson said.
Last year, the city collected about $30.8 million in sales tax receipts, which was a 28.3% drop from the roughly $43 million collected in fiscal year 2019-20 and the lowest haul since 2017.
But July, the first month of the new fiscal year, marked the third straight month that city’s sales tax receipts have gone up.
The amount in April was about $2.18 million. Since then it increased to $2.73 million in May and $2.80 million in June, according to the city.
“It sure is encouraging,” Carter-King said, adding that she was leery of saying the economy has come back to what it was a few years ago. “I’m just worried about every month as we go. Every month that comes up positive is sure a relief.
“But I think it’s been such a roller coaster the last few years that it’s hard to ever get real comfortable.”
New administrator starts Monday
Carter-King has another reason to be excited.
New city administrator Hyun Kim started his new job Monday.
Kim will take over full-time for Pat Davidson, who left for undisclosed reasons in February.
She appreciates the work staff, especially Utilities Director Michael Cole and Public Works Director Sawley Wilde who served as interim city administrators, have done to fill in over the past several months. But she looks forward to Kim coming on board.
The city has sent Kim general information packets to help get him caught up to speed with what is going on, she said.
“It will be nice to have him here finally and be able to work with him,” Carter-King said.
‘Hopefully this will continue’
The icing on the cake for the mayor was on Aug. 17 when voters approved the creation of a new community college district in Gillette.
“We are just really happy,” she said. “Our new administrator starts Monday and I feel very optimistic with the college (vote) passing. And right now, everything seems really positive.
“There’s lots of want ads for help, housing is going crazy. It just seems like a really good time and hopefully this will continue.”
Carter-King acknowledged there are some challenges the city faces, such as the rise in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.
As of Aug. 19, there were 242 active cases, which is up about 734% from July 19 when there were 29, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
“But as always, we’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst,” she said.